Greenpeace clashes with Danish navy after activists board oil-drilling ship

Environmental activists face arrest after climbing aboard oil exploration vessel in protest at Arctic deep-water drilling

A confrontation between Greenpeace protesters and the Danish navy has escalated sharply after the campaigners occupied a drilling ship off Greenland.

The environment group was warned on Monday that two protesters who climbed on to the British-operated oil exploration vessel are in breach of an exclusion zone around a deep-water drilling site about 90 miles off Greenland's coast.

Danish navy vessels are constantly intercepting the Greenpeace protest ship, Esperanza, after the protesters evaded patrols and occupied a survival pod they attached onto the drilling ship Leiv Eiriksson on Sunday morning.

The semi-submersible vessel which arrived at its drilling site on Monday morning is in a 500-metre security zone which is out of bounds to unauthorised people. The Danish navy and Greenlandic police are considering legal action against Greenpeace, boarding the Esperanza and attempting to arrest the protesters.

The action is in protest at a second season of test drilling by the Scottish firm, Cairn Energy, off Greenland; last summer four Greenpeace climbers occupied another rig operated by Cairn Energy on an exposed and flimsier platform for about 30 hours before being forced to give up by severe weather.

Greenpeace has accused the Greenlandic government and Cairn Energy of jeopardising the fragile marine environment of the Arctic by drilling for oil. It claims the region is so risky, sensitive and remote that an oil spill would be disastrous, and extremely difficult to clean up.

Ben Ayliffe, a Greenpeace campaigner on board the Esperanza, warned that a disaster similar to last year's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be catastrophic. After a storm off Greenland last week, he had seen "huge, huge icebergs just coming out of the fog". "It gives you an idea of the potential risks that Cairn faces up here."

Greenpeace believes Cairn Energy has only 14 vessels in the area able to react to a spill, compared to 6,500 vessels used after the Deepwater Horizon. The drilling company is also operating in iceberg-infested waters hit by extreme storms, and admits it could take 37 days to drill a relief well.

"It would be inconceivable that Cairn would be able mount anything like that response and they've studiously refused to publish any sort of emergency response plan," he said. "It's impossible to know what kind of response they would be able to deploy."

The Greenlandic government rejected Greenpeace's criticisms, and accused the environment group of opposing Greenland's democratic decision to explore for oil. It insists its safety standards are the most robust of any country, and based on stringent drilling regulations and emergency plans used by Norway.

Jørn Skov Nielsen, of Greenland's bureau of minerals and petroleum, said Greenpeace had been making "totally false" claims about its oil spill response plan. Despite the campaign group's allegations, significant parts of the response plan had been publicised.

"It's totally untrue that there's no evidence of a comprehensive oil spill response plan; the detail is known to all the authorities. The main elements of it are known to the public," he said.

He added that the government had a three-tier "oil spill response plan", which included emergency equipment on all drilling vessels, back-up vessels in Greenland's harbours and a "third tier" of support vessels and equipment provided by other countries.

Nielsen said some parts of the plan were confidential, particularly the location of emergency equipment, because, he claimed, Greenpeace, could try to "destabilise" the government's emergency planning.

"We don't want to publicise all these details to Greenpeace – the kind of information where they could find emergency equipment – because we think that there's a risk that they will try to destabilise the emergency plan. Because they have shown both this year and last year that they're willing to break the law," he said.

Greenland has issued 20 exploratory drilling licences and is to issue more next year to some of the world's largest oil companies, including Shell, ConocoPhillips, Statoil and Chevron. It is predicted there are billions of barrels of oil in its waters. Cairn, the first oil firm for more than a decade to begin test drilling, has yet to make a find.

Cairn said it "respects the right of individuals and organisations to express their views in a safe and peaceful manner" but would be worried by "any action that presents a risk to the safety of people and/or equipment".

Sources close to the operation said Greenland's safety measures are more exacting than those used in the Gulf of Mexico; Cairn is required to have a second drilling vessel on standby during all drilling operations. All icebergs within a 20-mile radius are tracked and removed, said one source.

Deep-water drilling has taken place within the Arctic for decades, including within winter ice fields, in countries such as Canada and Russia and in Norwegian waters.

• This article was amended on 1 June 2011. It originally said that the Danish navy and Greenlandic police have boarded the Esperanza. This has been corrected.

Contributor

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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